There was a time when all a good MPV needed to do was to provide space for all the family and their luggage, and have a big enough fuel tank to cope with long motorway journeys.
Things are a little different now, though. Outright space is still critical, but how that space is packaged is even more important. A new people carrier should offer a versatile cabin that can adapt to a raft of scenarios. If it seats seven, does the rear pair of seats fold flat into the floor? Can its seats be moved and folded independently of each other?
Our favourite MPVs also need to impress us with a comfortable, relaxing cabin environment plus plenty of safety kit to protect passengers from harm. We’re looking for a generous standard specification, combined with running costs that won’t break the bank, too.
Citroen Grand C4 Picasso
The brilliant new Grand C4 Picasso is so good that we named it our 2014 MPV of the Year. The 1.6 diesel is smooth and efficient, while the classy, minimalist dashboard and airy cabin make it a comfortable and relaxing place to spend time. Factor in easy-folding seats and generous standard kit and it’s easy to see why this is the best MPV you can buy.
Pick of the range: 1.6 e-HDi 115 Exclusive
The best of the rest
We named the C3 Picasso as the best budget MPV in our 2013 and 2014 Car of the Year awards. It has an airy cabin and a large boot, plus most versions ride well on supple suspension. It might not be as good to drive as a Ford B-Max, but it’s still excellent value for money.
Pick of the range: 1.4 VTi 95 VTR+
Citroen C4 Picasso
A roomy boot and seats that slide and fold independently mean the C4 Picasso is one of the most family-friendly new cars. The sleek, uncluttered dashboard is a seriously classy feature, too. The Citroen isn’t as good to drive as some rivals, but it’s far more spacious, stylish and economical.
Pick of the range: 1.6 e-HDi 115 Exclusive
Dynamic poise is the S-Max’s trump card over rivals. There are few MPVs that could be described as great to drive, but the Ford is one of them. The ride is slightly firm compared with rivals, but the S-Max is refined, roomy, versatile and well equipped.
Pick of the range: 2.0 TDCi 140 Zetec
With an appealing and practical interior and a comfortable ride, the Carens impresses in most of the key areas. Sure, it’s pretty ordinary to drive, and access to the rear seats isn’t great, but it’s competitively priced and well equipped. This is one of the better mid-size MPVs, and should be on your shortlist if your budget is less than £20,000.
Pick of the range: 1.7 CRDi 114 1 ISG
The Note offers genuine space and practicality for a small family. If you’re considering a Citroen C3 Picasso, then this Nissan should also be on your shortlist. It rides well, it’s cheap to buy and offers reasonable running costs. Refinement could be better, and the cabin isn’t quite as flexible as the Citroen’s, but it’s a worthy rival nonetheless.
Pick of the range: 1.2 DIG-S Acenta
The Alhambra was our 2013 MPV of the Year and it’s still a class act - spacious, refined and great value for money. It’s a fairly big car to get used to, but in return you get near faultless practicality and space for seven adults.
Pick of the range: 2.0 TDI 140 Ecomotive S
Vauxhall Zafira Tourer
The new 1.6 diesel Zafira Tourer is a big improvement over the 2.0-litre model it replaces. Power is delivered more smoothly and there’s hardly any of the clatter that you might expect from under the bonnet. It’s a tempting proposition for company car drivers, too, thanks to its sub-110g/km CO2 emissions. Add in the user-friendly flexible seating setup and this is a great value MPV, especially in Tech Line trim.
Pick of the range: 1.6 CDTi Ecoflex Tech Line
The ones to avoid
The Viano is an expensive people carrier that’s simply not comfortable or refined enough compared with the rest of the class. You have to remove the heavy rear seats to get a large load bay, so it doesn't have the versatility of more conventional MPVs.
Another van-based MPV that shows its roots in too many areas, the i800 feels durable but dull. The ride is bouncy when it’s not loaded with people, but there’s simply not enough safety kit to provide peace of mind when it is. This is a remarkably cheap way to transport eight people, but it disappoints in most other areas.
Chrysler Grand Voyager
We’ve got no complaints about interior space in the Grand Voyager. This MPV has a huge cabin, genuinely impressive fold-away rear seats, and even the cheapest version gets loads of equipment. It’s just a shame that the diesel engine feels underpowered and that the quality of interior materials is so disappointing.
The Mazda 5 has a decent amount of cabin space, but it’s nothing to write home about. The same goes for the ride and handling, and its CO2 emissions in particular are way behind other cars in the class. Don’t expect any excitement in the cabin; however, it feels well built and is loaded with kit. However, many rivals do the important things far better.